Much of what we might learn can be found in books or collected in the classroom from more knowledgeable others. However, some lessons can only be learned through life experience, and experience often takes us far from home. When it comes to the development of new perspectives and the synthesis of old ideas, few academic experiences can compare with study abroad. Through engagement with other persons in other cultures and through direct experience with their thoughts, customs, costumes, foods, and ways of life, we are made able to reflect more meaningfully on our own ways: often we can best see where we are by learning where we aren’t.
The Honors students whose stories of study abroad are shared below understand this. Please take a moment to read these excerpts from their own reflections on their travels.
Estelle Kimsey-White, Junior, International Studies and Spanish major.
This past summer, I spent five weeks living and studying in Havana, Cuba. The experience was simply indescribable. I was studying through a third party program, International Studies Abroad, and the group that I was with was very small, only six other students. Another student and I lived together with a host family in a beautiful neighborhood called Vedado. We attended our classes every weekday, on the campus of Instituto Superior de Arte, and on the weekends we took excursions to other provinces. I chose to study in Cuba because I knew very little about the country and found its history and current sociopolitical state to be very unusual and intriguing. Researching and finding up-to-date and accurate information on Cuba is very difficult, which made me hungry for investigation -- and the only way to really do so was to physically go check it out for myself.
One of the greatest parts of my program was our group leader, Dachelys, who was born and raised in Havana. On our first full day there, she sat us down and gave us a full, in-depth run-down on the ins and outs of finding our way around the city and feeling like a local. She explained how to navigate the streets, told us about her favorite cheap restaurants, and gave us tips on being (or, appearing to be) street smart. She then explained the dual currency system (CUP and CUC) -- the political history behind it and when to use each one. One of the most notable things that I remember learning during that meeting was how to hail a taxi. She explained that there are ‘direct’ taxis, which will charge you about five dollars (or more, if they can get away with it) to take you anywhere, and then there are ‘collective’ taxis, which have a specified route and you can ask to be dropped off at any point on the route. These cost only about twenty cents, so, obviously, it was in our best interest to be able to recognize and take advantage of them. To hail a collective taxi, you must use one of four hand signals to indicate which direction you are going in, and to which neighborhood. Learning these different hand signals felt like learning a secret code. After hailing a collective taxi going in the right direction, they would often stop several times until they were fully packed with strangers going all over the city. Days in Havana were some of the hottest and most humid I’ve ever experienced, so, although I was sometimes drenched in sweat, completely exhausted, and packed hip to hip with six strangers, there was always a strong sense of camaraderie in those taxi rides.
My time in Cuba was transformational. I was experiencing a beautiful and friendly country that has been represented through a biased political lens for decades. I was allowing the country to tell its story instead of my textbooks and news outlets. I gained a greater sense of my place in the world, how I should choose to represent myself and where I come from, and how to productively contribute to whatever community I find myself to be a part of on any given day.
Taxi ride. With permission of Estelle Kimsey-White.
Ariel Shefsky, Sophomore, Art major
I studied abroad in Prague within the Czech Republic; a city that is considered one of the largest “art hubs” in the world. Reflecting upon my experience, the label of this marvel couldn’t be more accurate. Every building was a work of art; a piece of either classic or modern architecture that I couldn’t help but ogle with each passing. In each part of the city, galleries litter the streets. A mix of local talent and famous pieces make up the complex world of art that hides within. The exposure to the cultural art alone formulated a new home for personal growth to take root.
Branching out of the galleries that, in and of themselves, captured a piece of my soul that I can honestly say I will only find within the art world, the city itself had me falling in love. Most every place one wanted to be was within walking distance- and if not, transit was readily available at a moment notice, all hours of the day. This experience exposed me to a level of culture that I had never before had the opportunity to experience. I grew a sense of understanding for cultural respect, and how to be a visitor in a foreign country without simply being a tourist. One thing I wanted in my experience was to feel at home in my temporary residence. By simply asking someone, in their native tongue, if they spoke English, the way the locals regarded me altered. More often than not, by caring enough to try to speak their language, the Czech were much kinder. Often, they found our attempts amusing and appreciated the effort.
For me, a lot of my growth was very personal. I developed a larger sense of self while I was abroad. I got to experience how I work with people outside of my comfort zone, how I adapt to new areas, my comfortability with being alone. I learned how I travel, and what things I look for both in my work and educational endeavors. I got to experience some of the most beautiful places in the world. I went solo backpacking from Prague to Zadar To Plitvice, and from Plitvice to Split, Croatia. I explored the castles of both Prague and Cesky Krumlov. I saw the bone church of Kunta Hora and the chapels within the Saint Barbara Cathedral. I learned about the culture of the Czechs, a meat and potato society that somehow has a population made up of approximately 60-70% vegetarians and vegans. I met people from America who found the Czech Republic and stayed. I got to expose myself to cultures that I never thought I would see; at least not in the near future. I made memories that are simply irreplaceable.
This past May I spent two weeks in Dublin, Ireland with fourteen other UNCA students and faculty from the Management Department. The focus of this trip was international business, specifically the marketing styles and techniques of several companies based in Dublin. While a good deal of our time was spent talking to representatives of a number of different Irish companies, we also focused on learning Irish history and becoming immersed in the local Irish culture while we were there.
While our first week was spent almost exclusively inside the city of Dublin, our second week took us over the border into Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. We also had a brief walking tour of this city, but it was far different from our Dublin tour experience. The division and conflict between the classes of people felt much more real and present. I was taken aback at how many memorials we saw in such a short amount of time. It was like the city was still recovering from war. There were paintings and murals on the side of practically every building we walked past; while some were just artistic, many were political. This was the only point during our trip that I felt any real culture shock.
There are several things that I know that I will take with me from this trip. First and foremost, I’ll treasure the friendships I made during my time in Ireland. There are quite a few people who I have continued to stay in contact with over the past few months and who I hope to remain close with over time. Second, Dublin is a gorgeous and incredibly welcoming city. All of my interactions with locals were wonderful; everyone was genuinely friendly and willing to help. I loved the atmosphere of the city, even as I was just wandering around and exploring. I will definitely be back to visit at some point, and I would love to live there one day. Third, from the businesses we talked to, I got the overall feeling that the human aspect of business was a lot more important to companies in Ireland than it is to companies in the U.S. There seemed to be more of a focus on the employees and the collective culture of the company. This is important to me because I am hoping to someday get a job with a large accounting firm that would allow me to work in one of their offices abroad, such as in Dublin.
Dublin, Ireland. With permission of Grace Kirik.
Reid Gudger, Junior, International Studies major.
Few experiences offer the chance to fundamentally change a person and their perspective of the world. These experiences teach us about the world, and about ourselves. They give us the confidence to face new challenges, while simultaneously filling us with wonder.
I elected to do a bit of volunteering while I was in Hong Kong. About a 30-minute walk away from my university was a place called Food Angel, which was where food is collected, cooked, and packaged for distribution to the homeless people in Hong Kong. Whenever I had time, I would volunteer there and help package food. I can’t speak but a few phrases in Cantonese, so communicating with the older people there was a bit of a challenge at first, but body language and emotional grunts and sounds of approval are surprisingly effective modes of communication. One of my favorite experiences there was volunteering for the Hong Kong Pride Parade. Hong Kong allows freedom of speech, and this was a demonstration that was pleading for the government to legalize homosexual marriage. We were all supposed to wear green to symbolize a green light on homosexual marriage, and the symbol of the event was a bull, to represent breaking down barriers. There was so much love and support throughout this entire event. Volunteering here really made me feel like I was part of a community. Of course, just like here, there were people that didn’t like the idea of homosexual marriage. However, their negativity was nothing compared to the massive crowd of supporters that showed up that day. I was truly honored to be a part of this experience.
Beyond the festivities and parades, there are also a plethora of museums and religious sites in Hong Kong. I visited quite a few temples during my stay in Asia, and they were each breathtaking. I even had the chance to visit a Sikh place of worship. There, they offer free food on Sundays, and I was invited to join some of my friends there for dinner one day. When we entered the building, we were required to take off out shoes and socks, and we had to cover our hair with a cloth that they provided. After a service that I didn’t understand, we were taken to the basement where we sat on the floor and ate a delicious Indian meal with our hands. It was an incredible experience, even though I couldn’t walk very well for a few minutes after sitting on the floor with my legs crossed for over an hour and a half.
I could write a book about all of the things I experienced while I was on exchange. I haven’t even touched upon what it felt like to be a minority for the first time in a country, nor did I mention my bout with a highly-progressed tonsillitis. I have left out New Years in Japan, and my walk through the infamous suicide forest there. My scholastic experiences were too much to write about here, as were my adventures in Thailand, Macau, and Singapore. Not to mention my trip to the Great Wall, the terracotta army, and much more! I didn’t even get a chance to talk about how I fell in love for the first time.
The point here is: The experiences that exchange offer vary widely, and they will differ for each of us. On exchange, we are offered a chance to learn about ourselves, about the world around us, and even about the very place where we started. Just as the experiences while abroad are endless, so to are the benefits of traveling. My best advice to anyone is simple: just go. Dare to leave your home. Experience the world around you, and expose yourself to new challenges. You will come back stronger, wiser, and more confident than ever before.